by Brad Lomenick
You are probably unaware I spent several years working on a ranch in Colorado. If you know anything about ranch life, you know that fixing fences is a constant requirement and part of the job.
My drenched hands worked furiously as thunder clapped overhead. When I began repairing the corral fence an hour earlier, the sky was a palette of blue. But forty minutes into the project, clouds rolled in and showered down on my team and me. We pressed on with our work.
Now, a little rain never hurt anyone, but lightning is nothing to mess around with. Determined to finish the job, I ignored the dangers. I came to regret this decision moments later when the heavens grew angry and released their electric fury. Lightning struck the fence while my hand still gripped the barbwire.
After the flash of light, all I remember was waking up in a pile of manure, staring back at two horses who looked as confused as I. As the pace of my world sped up to normal, I began to pat my body and make sure all my limbs were still attached. They were. Luckily, I had been wearing gloves that day; otherwise I’d be writing this book in between harp lessons in the Great Beyond.
That story will always be seared—somewhat literally—in my memory for two reasons. First, it reminds me that one should always consider the safety and well-being of his or her team no matter the potential cost. But also, it is an emblem of a work ethic that was passed down to me from my father and has never left me. I’m a “get it done” kind of guy, and I hate failing to finish any project once I’ve started it.
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that most of us are “middle of the pack” leaders. We don’t want to work too much harder than others around us, because, heck, we won’t necessarily make more money for it. And we don’t want to work less than others around us, because, heck, we might get fired. So we slip into the middle of the pack, and work just hard enough to keep our jobs and fly under the radar. But we have to resist this temptation. Choose to outwork everyone else. Arrive early; stay late; do whatever it takes to produce a stellar product. Finish what you start, and complete the tasks we could easily put off. Great leaders are great finishers.
Henry Ford said it well: “You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.” When you’re tempted to slack off or slow down, outwork everyone else. It doesn’t matter how much of a race you run if you don’t cross the finish line. Similarly, unfinished projects might as well never have been started. “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results” according to Winston Churchill.
TWEET THIS: It doesn’t matter how much of a race you run if you don’t cross the finish line. Similarly, unfinished projects might as well never have been started.
That’s why whenever I interviewed potential new team members over the years, I wanted to make sure that they were creative enough to generate ideas but also determined enough to see those ideas through to completion. One of the most valuable traits of any employee is his or her ability to execute and get things done. In fact, I would suggest that in today’s leadership climate, no other habit is more important than execution. Anyone can come up with a new idea, concept, or marketing plan. Ideas are overrated. What truly matters is whether you can take an idea from concept to completion. Whether you can carry the ball all the way down the field and cross the goal line. Everyone is required to execute and take projects from start to finish. It’s a non-nonnegotiable in the new economy of leadership.
Though execution is a critical workplace skill, many leaders procrastinate before beginning, stall out once they’ve started, or give up before they’ve finished. Getting projects across the finish line, or what Seth Godin calls “shipping,” is too often a rarity among leaders.
One reason is because strong leaders are often natural initiators. They are willing to take risks on fresh endeavors. They are energized by new projects, new divisions, new ideas. Launching into uncharted territory or tinkering with novel ideas gets their blood pumping. Initiation is a strength most great leaders share.
Because of this, some will hire and delegate the responsibility to execute to someone else. If you have the resources and means to take this step, it can often work—at least temporarily. But when there is a vacancy in that position, suddenly projects fall behind. And often the person in that position feels unsupported by the leader who isn’t at all invested in the tasks that they must complete. So every leader must share the responsibility for getting the job done.
TWEET THIS: Many leaders procrastinate before beginning, stall out once they’ve started, or give up before they’ve finished.
If you’re an artist—a film director, graphic designer, or writer—this can be doubly difficult. Because creatives thrive on creativity, not processes. People-oriented leaders will also find this habit more challenging than task-oriented leaders, like myself. Those in these fields should be especially aware of their outstanding projects and intentional about making progress to execute. If you’re a feeler or perceiver or creative, you will need to work harder at developing a habit of execution.
A few best practices that you might find helpful:
1. Craft a plan and create accountability. When an idea is generated, never leave the meeting without determining how the idea should move forward. If you kick the can down the road, you may never see it again. And even if one person is ultimately responsible for the project, assign coleaders to it as well. Delegating to multiple team members will create accountability and increase the project’s chances of timely completion.
2. Figure out your get-it-done time of day. Notice when you are most productive, and lean into that. For me, it’s the morning—I can get more done in the first three hours of the day than I can the entire rest of the day. So figure yours out and plan accordingly.
3. Reward completion as much as you do initiation. Everyone wants credit for having an impactful idea and to be able to say, “I thought of that.” But an organization thrives on all the support staff who drive the idea forward. Make sure that everyone who works to complete the project is as rewarded and recognized as the one who had the flash of insight in the first place. Done is better than perfect.
Instead of an organization that defaults to “let’s meet about it,” build a culture that immediately thinks, Let’s make it happen. A little less talk, and a lot more action, as the country song says. Less meetings, I believe, leads to more execution. If you must have a meeting, focus on solving a problem/creating a solution, not just informing people on what you could have e-mailed. Leaders are problem solvers, pure and simple. Be a problem solver and solution creator, instead of a problem creator and solution delayer.
4. Hire doers, not talkers. Potential new hires will often brag about the projects they “oversee” at their current job. Make sure to dig deeper into what they actually do to execute on those projects. Scratch the surface and you’ll often find their team deserves the lion’s share of the credit for what they’ve “accomplished.” Seek to hire hustlers (in the positive sense of the word). You’re better off with an overzealous employee who even completes others’ tasks without being asked than a daydreamer and brainstormer who must be motivated to execute. It’s easier to slow down a racehorse by having to pull back on the reins than to spur a field horse to get moving.
TWEET THIS: Some of us need to put down the megaphone and just grab a shovel. Little less talk, and a lot more action.
5. Let your team manage up more than you manage down. One of the goals of a leader is to help those who work under you to one day work beside you. This means reversing the micromanaging system that many type A leaders automatically set up so that you’re executing while producing executors. Give away your managerial responsibilities to those who are normally the recipients of it and let them take tasks to completion.
6. Understand that actions speak loud. Let your actions speak way louder than your words. Don’t just talk about it. Your work serves as a mirror for your attitude and commitment and service. Anticipate what your boss or client or guests need before they ask for something. Be proactive. Own the relationship and the result. Your answer should never be “That’s not my job.” Take initiative to see the problem or issue through to the very end. Help create an action-leaning culture by working your guts out. Creating anything is hard. Sweat equity is the number one ingredient. Impact comes from forward motion. Action creates traction.
7. Murder, when appropriate. This habit must be handled with care. Don’t complete a project for completion’s sake. You’ll often realize that an idea should be killed while you’re still attempting to execute. When this becomes clear, murder it and move on. However, if you find dead bodies lying all over the floor, you should evaluate your creative process to determine why so many of the ideas your team is generating are unsustainable.
TWEET THIS: You’ll often realize that an idea should be killed while you’re still attempting to execute. When this becomes clear, murder it and move on.
A habit of execution is one of the key differentiators between a leader and a manager because managers often wait on someone else to give them direction. They focus on maintaining the status quo among their team. They may motivate those under them, but they won’t drive a new project forward unless their boss asks them to. Managers tend to want constant direction, so they make sure approval has been given and always cover their tracks in case something goes wrong. A manager will often feel content with a project remaining unfinished so long as it is not his responsibility or one of his team members isn’t at fault. “Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” —Peter Drucker
Leaders, on the other hand, don’t wait to be assigned a task. If they identify an undone task they can complete, they jump in. Their concern is for the organization at large rather than the performance of their direct reports. Execution energizes them.
So make sure you commit to completing projects in your organization no matter what . . . unless that means working outside in a lightning storm.
H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle releases Tuesday, September 22, and is available where all books are sold. Order your copy today! And to read more info about the book, along with special offers, visit H3Leadership.com or Brad’s website.
About Brad Lomenick
Brad Lomenick is a renowned speaker, sought-after leadership consultant, author and longtime president of Catalyst, largely credited with growing the organization into one of the largest and most recognized leadership brand and gathering that it is today. For over 10 years, Brad led the Catalyst Conference and garnered the reputation as a convener of America’s most respected leaders including John Maxwell, Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Mark Burnett, Tony Dungy, Marcus Buckingham and Rick Warren, among many others. In 2013, he published his first book, The Catalyst Leader, and his second book, H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle., released in September of 2015. A prolific content creator, for eight years Brad hosted the Catalyst Podcast, interviewing change makers from across the globe and attracting hundreds of thousands of listeners per month. Additionally, he frequently blogs about leadership, the next generation, creativity, innovation, social media, teamwork, personal growth, and more on his website. He has been featured in TIME, Washington Post, Fast Company, Business Insider, CNN.com, Religion News Service, and others. For more information, visit BradLomenick.com.